I was in Tijuana before the full force of what I’d just driven away from came for me. I kept moving south, though, white-knuckled through thick traffic, past rows of colorful, leaning shacks lined up along the side of the freeway like broken pieces of a piñata because going back wasn’t an option and because after a few minutes, the hazy city lights blinked out of view in the rear-view mirror and the scent of the ocean beckoned me forward. Once I caught sight of the Pacific, slowly turning to ink in the fading light, the impulse that had pointed me south in the first place felt more inspired than insane.
It had taken only twenty minutes to get to Mexico from my apartment in San Diego and the initial impact numbness in my ribs wore off another twenty minutes later around Rosarito. I needed to dull the pain if I was going to take a full breath anytime soon. When I got to the hotel I went straight to the bar for a shot of tequila and a Pacifico. Then I sent my shitty duffel bag, packed with a wardrobe meant to move my grandmother’s house not lounge poolside at a Mexican resort hotel, off to my room with a bellboy and my last $5. The restaurant was packed full of tourists but the bar only had a few couples waiting for tables. In the two minutes I stood still waiting for my beer, the evening in rewind began to play back. Between the pain and the panic I couldn’t get more than a string of shallow panting breaths and I was starting to feel dizzy from shock or the lack of oxygen or both. I took the shot at the bar and the beer out to the patio where at least if I hyperventilated I wouldn’t make a scene.
Thick sea air enveloped me and my instinct was to take in a deep lungful, but my ribs screamed a warning at me. Still, the salt was heavy in the air and the mist soft on my skin—the only touch I’d be able to tolerate for a while. The pool was lit up glossy blue. Beyond the pool, a low sea wall separated the rocky black shoreline and surf from the patio. I stood with my face to the crash, my back to the rest of it.
I needed to tell someone what happened, but Robin would gossip, my parents would say press charges, and my grandma would…I actually couldn’t predict what she would do, but I could see the look on her face and it was enough. I dug through my purse, noticing and ignoring the missed call notifications on my phone until I found a notebook and a pen. It had been a while since I used a notebook as a confessional. It wasn’t even a proper notebook, just a beat-up spiral pad that I kept in my bag for shopping lists, but it would work. I would scribble through the night, tossing each page into the ocean until I didn’t have anything left to say about anything. But I couldn’t even do that right.
When I tried to slump down over the page my bruised ribs sang out. “Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck!” I hissed and held my breath.
My eyes watered and my ears hummed in tune with the throb of pain. Beyond the white noise I heard a deep voice below where my feet dangled over the sea wall. ‘Don’t freak out,’ I think it said. The bottle of Pacifico slipped from my hand, made a loud ‘tonk’ sound before shattering on the rocks below. Before I could do more than stand, the voice leapt over the wall.
A few explanations seemed possible: 1) I was dreaming—not only this instant, but the entire evening. This was all a bad dream fueled by the dread of packing up my grandma’s house. 2) I was hallucinating—I had just done a shot of tequila and the pain in my ribs was making my eyes water. 3) I’d just hit the actor, Cannon Sorenson, over the head with a beer bottle.
The least likely of the three finally made its case for reality when he smiled and my stomach flipped. He was grimacing and rubbing the top of his head where hopefully I’d only left a goose egg, not a gash. Just what I needed, a personal injury lawsuit.
Add it to the list of stuff gone wrong tonight:
- Worst fight ever with Andy—check
- Back out of packing up my grandma’s house—check
- Flee the country for a weekend at a Mexican hotel I can’t afford—check
An urge to run tried to rally support but my legs were numb and threatening to give out all together. Maybe I could get him to run instead. Andy liked to call me Queen Wisecrack and not as a compliment (though, if anything I was more sarcastic, than witty) but either way, I was coming up blank. All I could do was stare, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu, like we had met before. We hadn’t, obviously, unless one counted the one-way introduction of a cinema screen.
He wasn’t shorter than in the movies like people always said about actors. He looked taller actually, and better looking—and, God, his teeth were white. All I could think was: Wow. Just. Wow. I mean, he was really good looking. I wanted to apologize for hitting him on the head, but I didn’t trust my voice yet. I must have looked disabled because his grin and wince faded and his eyebrows pulled down with concern.
“Are you okay?” he asked, moving toward me. As he came closer the air vibrated like turbulence from an oncoming jet. I stepped back. He stopped short.
“I’m Can.” His hand crossed the distance between us and he gave me a smirk/smile.
I released the death grip on my pen and notebook, set them next to my bag on the sea wall, extended my hand, watching it shake before meeting his grip.
“I am so sorry,” I said.
“And I thought Can was a weird name,” he joked in a Groucho Marx voice.
“I meant about your head,” I said before I got the joke. Duh.
“It’s okay.” He waved off the injury. “I surprised you. I’ll buy you another beer if you promise not to hit me over the head with it. But only on one condition.”
“Tell me your name?”
The line sounded so much like a leading man one-liner that a bubble of laughter came out against my will. He grimaced, at himself or my reaction, I couldn’t tell.
“I’m Madelyn,” I said, trying to pull my lips out of a stupid grin.
“Madelyn,” he repeated, it felt like hug.
I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed that I’d accosted a movie star, but the seawall was just outside the circle of light surrounding the pool. The crowded hotel restaurant played like a silent move on the other side of a wall of windows. The only other signs of life were two faint bobbing lights on a fishing boat out at sea.
“How’s your head?”
“My head’s fine, really. Very thick, ask anyone,” he said with a lopsided smile that was equal parts charming and annoying. “Are you okay? You sounded upset.”
“Fine.” I said, hoping that he’d take the polite stranger hint.
“I thought I heard, and I quote, ‘fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.’ Or something along those lines.”
“Just a really bad day and a moment of self-pity,” I said.
“You could tell me about it if you want.”
“What are you doing in Mexico?” I asked. Offense is the best defense.
“Filming,” he said.
I nodded. “Makes sense.”
That didn’t get me very far.
Robin would be so disappointed in me. She swooned at the mention of Cannon Sorenson’s name. He held a permanent spot on the frequently updated top ten-list pinned up next to her desk. She’d have a hundred follow-up questions, but I was drawing a blank. What was I doing talking to this guy? Was he going to ask me back to his room? Did he think it was that easy? Look at him. Probably was that easy. I ought to ask him back to my room. Every ounce of common sense was collectively pulling together, screaming ‘run!’ but I couldn’t move. He was the last in a long line of unexpected today and it seemed I’d had enough.
“What are you doing in Mexico? Vacation?” he asked.
“I’m hiding,” I said to sound mysterious and because it was as close to the truth as anything else.
“Hiding from who?”
“No one.” This time the plain truth came out.
Cannon nodded like he understood.
“You’re here by yourself?” he asked.
“You probably shouldn’t be out here alone.” The concern irritated me even though I’d had the same worry when I crossed the border.
“I’m used to doing things on my own, but thanks for your concern.” I measured my words, not wanting to be rude, but also really not in the mood for a lecture.
“So…‘used to doing things on my own’… a clue,” he said, changing the subject entirely.
He slapped his hands together, rubbed them briskly, then took my hand to look at the palm. The contact sent a surge of heat through my arm up to my neck and face.
“Let’s see… …” he said. “Only child…family moved around a lot…dad in the military?…”
He’d come pretty close except for the military bit, but something in me refused the easy label. “Nope I’m married.”
His smile faded and he released my hand. “Really?”
My ego lifted a little at his disappointment. Andy flashed into my consciousness long enough for me to dismiss him. “No, not really.”
“Ah, a comedian.” He smiled his devastating full smile this time—the one that made him famous.
My insides went soupy. Time to send Mr. Movie Star on his way and get on with my evening. Not because I felt any loyalty to Andy—I spent most of the two-hour drive to Ensenada scripting break up speeches—but it was time to stop pretending that this conversation was going anywhere.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I came out here with the intention of getting drunk,” I told him. “I don’t think an audience would be wise.”
Nothing like honesty to send a guy running. Worked on Andy every time.
“Wow, that bad huh?”
He didn’t get up to leave.
“I’ll make you a deal,” he said.
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off.
“Hear me out. Please?”
I hesitated, curiosity sided with the weird paralysis.
He took my silence as an opening and talked fast. “Here’s the thing, I’ve been stuck down here for three weeks working with a director who was pressured by the producer to hire me, my married co-star love interest is having an affair with my co-star best friend and every step I take when I leave the set is published in the tabloids. I am so bored that a few moments ago I considered drowning myself in the ocean just to have something to do.”
His smile didn’t quite make it all the way to his eyes; he was being dramatic but serious at the same time. So he was lonely. I could identify with that—for the absolute polar opposite reasons, but still.
“Don’t you have people to entertain you? Where’s your entourage?”
“Funny,” he said.
“I’m serious. Why are you soliciting the company of a stranger? Anyone in that restaurant would pay you to drink with them, not the other way around.”
“It’s a little…louder that way.”
He was either really good at acting sincerely desperate or he really was sincerely desperate and I could identify with that, too.
“What’s your deal?” I asked.
“You let me stay, and I will not only buy your drinks, but I will get drunk with you. That way you don’t have to worry about an audience—I won’t remember anything.”
“You’d do that for me?” I batted my eyelashes.
“That’s the kind of guy I am.” He flashed a toothy Dudley-Do-Right grin that was hysterically close to his real one.
He laughed and I smiled. It felt good, like bending my wrist after getting the cast off in sixth grade.
“Was that a yes?”
I looked at the alternative—my sad, scribbled shopping list notebook on the seawall and shrugged. “Okay.” Why not? Might as well get my drinks paid for.
“Don’t move,” he said and jogged off around the pool toward the bar with the long clumsy stride of a still-growing puppy.
How old was he, I wondered? Robin would know. She could probably tell me where he grew up, who he’d dated and where he vacationed last. Being clueless was fine with me. In fact, mutual anonymity sounded like sanctuary at the moment.
I knew I should go back to my room before I made things worse, which was all I seemed capable of doing lately; instead I sat back down on the wall, wanting to slouch, but my ribs protested again—this time, in addition to the scream of pain, they added a sinister laugh at the thought that distance would make anything go away. The salt air had rescued me before so I took in another slow dose of thick, nighttime fog.
I could see Cannon at the bar through the full-length windows along the hotel’s back wall, framed and lit by the soft interior lights like he was on a TV screen. He kept looking back. At first I thought he could sense I wanted to vanish, but then I realized the lights were showing his reflection on the lit-up interior of the glass. How movie star was that?
Robin would die. Somehow she would hold it against me that I hadn’t invited her on my unplanned visit. She’d remind me that I only knew of the hotel because last spring break she invited me to join her and a college friend at Las Rosas. If she were here she’d be clawing at my arm, writhing with excitement and her imagined reaction was enough to make my legs twitch again with the urge to sprint.
Maybe my flight reflex had been exhausted for the night because I was still sitting there when he came back out with a bucket of beers, holding up the bottle of tequila like a trophy—the expensive stuff I had contemplated for my earlier shot before learning it was twenty-five bucks a pop.
The first shot went down like a hot pepper. “You do two shots to my one if you want to stay and drink,” I said.
He took his first and refilled the glass. “That is good tequila. Best thing about this trip so far.” After a pause he added, “Second best.”
He raised the next shot to me and threw it back. I rolled my eyes, but he missed the gesture. Did he know he sounded like a made-up version of himself? I felt like I should ask about the movie he was filming, if only to get the fact that he was a celebrity out in the open. What should I say? ‘My friend Robin wants to jump your bones?’ Before I could stop myself, “I saw you on a Barbara Walters special once,” slipped out.
His face read: ‘Way to kill a buzz.’
“I’m sorry. Did I say the wrong thing?”
“No,” he said. “No, I just like to pretend that open book thing doesn’t exist. And it’s not that I take my success for granted. And I realize publicity’s part of the job description.” The last bit added like a clause in a contract.
“If it helps, I don’t remember much of it. I’m not even sure I watched the whole interview.”
He laughed, a kid’s laugh, tucking his chin, eyes closed, shoulders hunched, like he wanted to hold on, loud enough I expected heads to turn, but there was no one around.
“That’s probably for the best,” he said, still laughing. “I’m sure I came off like an asshole, something like the ‘open book’ comment.”
I shrugged to avoid agreeing or disagreeing and opened a couple of beers, handed one to him and took a long pull off my own. Already my limbs were feeling loose and elastic, the pain in my side still there but at a lower volume.
“I couldn’t give up my anonymity. You must love your job,” I said.
“I do, but I wish I could do it without the celebrity.”
“You can, it’s called theater.”
Another laugh. Another shot. I handed him the bottle.
“Would you feel better if I told you something about me?” I asked.
He nodded, and took his third.
“Well, I’m an only child. My parents moved around a lot…”
It took him a minute. I laughed, my old one that used to escape when I was a kid watching my dad do his Scarlett O’Hara impression. Alcohol must be kicking in. Everything I’d been trying to out run—my grandma moving, the fight with Andy, a job I hated and the loneliness that waited for me at home—sounded like a loud hum on the other side of a closed door. Not going anywhere, but out of sight.
“Can I see your necklace?” Cannon asked.
The request was a bad combination of change in subject and exactly what I’d been thinking about anyway. I looked down to see my hand clutching the locket—the catalyst of the night gone wrong. One minute I was bracing for a weekend of erasing the only constant residence of my life, heading north on I-5 to the San Fernando Valley, the next I was stuck in the middle of another fight with Andy.
Some lucky charm.
Cannon leaned in and picked up the locket, turned it over to see both sides. The heat of his hand warmed my skin and two hours ago faded into the shadows.
“It was my grandma’s.”
“It there a picture in it?”
I opened the clasp. The picture was old and the light was dim. Cannon leaned in. I held my heartbeat.
“Wow, is that a painting?”
I nodded. “It’s my great-grandma, May. She painted the self-portrait and my great-grandfather, who was a jeweler, made the locket. They both died when my grandma was a teenager.”
The locket was a distinct piece—a painted ceramic oval enclosed in an intricate gold lace filigree casing—it always encouraged an admiring curiosity when I wore it, which actually wasn’t very often. The responsibility of wearing the only remaining picture of May around my neck usually wasn’t worth the compliment. Thanks to a drought of special occasions of late, the necklace hadn’t been out of my jewelry box unless I was driving up to visit my grandma. I had just left work and gotten on the interstate heading north when I realized I left it back at the apartment. Elsa always stepped away from our hello hug and opened the case to smile at her mother’s fading image and I couldn’t show up without it this weekend of all weekends, so I turned around even though I knew Andy would be home.
Can’s gaze moved from the locket to my face and back. Most people commented on my resemblance to the dark-haired, heart shaped face, but Can just closed the lid, set it back between my collarbones. When it touched my skin again it was unexpectedly cooler and I shivered. The air around the pool was wet and the heat of the day gone.
“Here.” Can pulled off the white button-down shirt he wore over a t-shirt and wrapped it around me before I could object, and once I had it on I was glad I hadn’t. It was filled with his warmth and the smell of some expensive boy soap. Andy used to offer up his jacket when we first started dating, but lately he shrugged and told me I should have dressed warmer.
My head started to spin with the Andy/Cannon contrast. I moved to lay back on the cement wall, forgot about my ribs and had to revert to slow motion and shallow breathing. Stars flashed across my vision blending in with a few of the real ones showing up between patches in the cloud cover.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Can asked at my obvious discomfort. I made my face smooth with a little effort.
“Too bad they don’t rent sleeping bags and lounge chairs. Not a bad view from here,” I said when I regained a normal breath, hoping he’d follow the redirection.
“I agree,” Can said, looking at me not the sky.
It took some effort not to laugh, but I held it in, not sure if he was serious or joking and pretty sure hard laughter would hurt. I sat back up again, carefully.
“What’s that?” Can asked, nodding at my forgotten notebook and pen.
“Nothing.” I shrugged.
“You shrug a lot.”
“Instead of answering questions. You shrug and change the subject.”
I resisted the urge to shrug. I met his gaze, but everything else went a little wobbly, like the surface of the pool.
“What was the question, again?”
He pointed to the notebook.
“I used to write,” I said finally. “Haven’t quite kicked the habit.”
My answer unleashed a string of questions and I offered up the easy stuff: undergraduate degree at SDSU, journalism major, first job out of school as a researcher for the weekly paper, first by-line a story about a traveling soccer team in La Jolla. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant to hang out in the past, a time before Andy and my current crappy job at a law office. I wasn’t exactly that person anymore, but I had been at one time so it only felt a little like cheating to assume the character again.
We moved on to listing various favorites: book, college course, movie, beach, city. Not surprisingly, his answers were more exotic than mine:
- War and Peace vs. Pride and Prejudice
- antebellum architecture vs. any writing workshop
- Brazil vs. Annie Hall
- some island off the Italian coast vs. the closest bit of coast
- Prague vs. Seattle
At some point during the cross-examination it became impossible to get comfortable sitting on the wall and I had to pull over a lounge chair. Cannon followed my lead, but sat on the edge of his chair facing me. I found it easier to look up at the wisps of fog drifting past than to deal with the weirdness of a stranger having such a familiar face. I was just a few long blinks away from falling asleep as the conversation slowed to single-word inquiries and short-hand, slurred responses. Beer? No mas. Cold? Mmmm. Tired? Little bit, you? Not really.
I turned my head to look at him for the first time in a while and the effort distorted the lounge chair into a rolling waterbed of movement. I wasn’t ready to go back to my empty room, but we had emptied the bucket of beers and respectable amount of tequila and if I waited any longer I’d be crawling. When I stood up the world shifted into double vision without warning. If I could cross the patio to the hotel and get a hold of the stairway railing I was pretty sure I could find my way. Can put a hand on my elbow and I heard him ask if he could walk me back to my room. His voice sounded like it was coming at me through one of those cup and string phones kids make. I meant to say ‘sure,’ but it came out ‘chirp,’ which he took as an affirmative. I tried really hard not to lean on him for support, but my body felt like a balloon on the end of a string—attached, but defiantly buoyant. We said goodnight at the door. I think. I actually didn’t remember that part when I woke up for a drink of water around dawn, but there was no evidence to say otherwise.
I pulled the shades to the room’s tiny balcony, stumbled around long enough to chase a couple of ibuprofen down with a bottle of water and collapsed back in bed. I woke up again around noon and put a pillow over my head, trying to blot out the slices of sunlight coming into the room at the curtain’s edge. In the dark, snapshots of last night flashed by like a slide show. In most of them I was sitting too close Cannon laughing at something that probably wasn’t that funny. “Why?” I groaned into the empty room. Only the realization that I would never have to see him again allowed me to move beyond mortification and toward the bathroom—that and the taste of road kill in my mouth.